Last summer, a collective of young developers opened a rooftop bar on the eighth floor of the Bok building, a former public school in South Philadelphia. It caused a small controversy among some who thought it was not appropriate to the building’s history.
This summer, they are again making the building lively with an immersive video art installation in the former girls’ gymnasium.
The gym is dark, with video projections sweeping the walls and ceiling. They are images that artist Ricardo Rivera found in the abandoned school, including geometry lesson plans, high school yearbook photos, and sheet music for the school’s song.
The sound design comes from samples of a vinyl record Rivera found in the building — called “Who Built America” — and an interview he conducted with longtime Bok athletic coach Tom DeFelice. “Coach D,” as he was known to generations of students, described the racial tension around the school when its student body tipped from mostly white to mostly black.
Rivera pushed the audio mix through the gymnasium’s original speakers.
“They have a patina, a certain crackle that’s endearing,” said Rivera, who designed the audio to envelop the viewer. “The music is on the ground, it’s bassy; the tinny, crackly thing in speakers that are elevated; and the reverb of the gym itself — you have this beautifully haunting swirl of audio.”
The installation, “Vacant America,” is open three days a week inside the Bok building (Wednesday evenings, Friday evenings, and Saturday afternoons). Rivera, the co-founder and director of Klip Collective, hopes it will be the first of many audio/visual installations in abandoned buildings across the country, telling the stories of places that have been neglected — churches, schools, strip malls, and others.
“All these spaces that we throw away,” said Rivera. “I think it’s kind of weird.”
The Philadelphia School District shuttered Bok three years ago and sold the building to developer Lindsey Scannapieco to repurpose as a mixed-use space for small manufacturers and artists. Last summer her company, Sprout, began with a pop-up, rooftop bar, which rubbed some people the wrong way due to the threat of gentrification and anger about the closing of the school.
The bar was designed to be temporary and has since closed. The building’s offices, classrooms, and workshops are being renovated accommodate tenants, starting with the first two floors, which are nearly at capacity with artists, light manufacturing, and small businesses.
“This building has all kinds of tenants coming in,” said leasing manager Liz Maillie. “Installations like this celebrate what it was and what is to come.”
“Vacant America” symbolically represents problems with Philadelphia’s public school system. The images projected on the walls are faces of Bok students from the 1940s to ’60s, with their names cascading across the ceiling.
Four hundred school chairs found onsite — the molded plastic kind with chrome legs — are stacked in towering rows. As those rows move across the basketball court, they collapse into chaos.
Rivera’s video projections sweep against that pile, making the chrome chair legs twinkle.
“That’s what I do. I can make anything look pretty,” said Rivera. “But the fact that this has meaning, and there is a question at the end, drives this home for me.”